Actress. Born Sandra Miju Oh (her middle name means “pretty pearl” in Korean) on July 20, 1971. Oh’s father Joon-Soo (John) and mother Young-Nan emigrated from South Korea to study economics and biochemistry, respectively. Sandra Oh and her siblings were raised in a suburb of Ottawa, Canada, where they were active in the tight-knit local Korean community. “Wherever Koreans are, they set up a church,” Oh said of her childhood. “There weren’t many of us, maybe 10 families, so [ours] was like a church in the basement of a church.”
Oh’s parents put her in ballet at the age of 4 in hopes of correcting her natural pigeon-toed gait, a move that had the unintended consequences of sparking a love of performing. At age 10, Oh appeared in her first play, The Canada Goose. By the age of 15, the honor student started booking professional gigs in television, theatre and commercials.
When it came time for her to attend college, and Oh turned down an academic scholarship in favor of the National Theatre School of Canada, her parents balked. “They didn’t see that there was any meaning to being an actor,” Oh says. “It was like, ‘What are you doing for society? Are you being a good Christian?’ They were classic immigrants—they wanted their children to become doctors or lawyers. My sister is a lawyer, and my brother is finishing his Ph.D. in medical genetics. The fact that now I play a doctor on TV? Nothing could be better!” Oh did end up going to the prestigious drama school, paying her own tuition.
Her big break came when she beat out more than 1,000 other actress for the title role in The Diary of Evelyn Lau, a television biopic about a tortured, young Chinese poet. “When she came in to the audition, she asked for a moment to focus herself. Then she lay on the floor for five minutes,” director Sturla Gunnarsson said. “I thought it was remarkable that at 19 she had the confidence—and audacity—to do that.” For her debut performance, Oh won a Gemini (Canada’s equivalent of the Emmy Award) nomination and the 1994 Cannes FIPA d’Or for Best Actress. She still considers the film one of the best she’s ever done.
After a few lean years as a struggling actress (boosted by a lucky $5,000 scratch-off lottery ticket she won when she was nearly broke) Oh was cast as sassy assistant Rita Wu in the HBO comedy Arli$$, for which she won a Cable Ace award. Oh moved to Los Angeles in 1996 to work on the show, which ran seven seasons. She also appeared in movies like Under the Tuscan Sun, Bean, and The Red Violin, as well as the television shows Six Feet Under and Judging Amy.
In 2003, Oh married director Alexander Payne, who cast her in his upcoming movie, Sideways. The small, independent film about two male friends touring California’s wine country amidst midlife crisis became a surprise hit, and was nominated for five Academy Awards. Oh won critical acclaim for her supporting performance as a wine pourer who memorably throttles co-star Thomas Haden Church in one classic scene. The real-world marriage between Oh and Payne did not fare so well, though; the two split in 2005 and finalized their divorce in 2007.
Her performance in Sideways helped Oh land a starring role in the new medical drama series Grey’s Anatomy, which premiered in 2005. Oh played Dr. Cristina Yang, a ruthlessly ambitious medical intern. “I’ve always tried to play Cristina with a tremendous amount of focus and ambition—which is the reality for a female surgeon,” Oh said. Fans loved the show and Oh’s Cristina. Oh’s work on the show has been honored with a Golden Globe and multiple Screen Actor’s Guild awards and Emmy nominations. “I’ve never met an actress as conscious, as analytical, as Sandra,” says co-star Chandra Wilson. “She thinks about every word coming out of her mouth.”
Oh’s work in television and film has been groundbreaking, not just for the quality of her performances but for the visibility she has brought to roles for Asian actors. Oh has made a big difference in what is still far from a level playing field. “When it comes to getting acting roles,” Oh said, “I cannot compare myself to a white girl. If I did, I’d probably die.”